Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

A turf specialist as 3YO champion? Not on my ballot

Racing's glamor division, 3-year-old males, is still without a clear leader. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and late season sensation West Coast probably have the inside track with a pair of Grade 1 wins apiece. Turf specialist Oscar Performance could become the only sophomore with a trio of Grade 1 scores in Saturday's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Some argue this would make him a candidate for the 3-year-old Eclipse. Also, there is concern in some circles that the new relaxed IRS rules will bring about the elimination of low cost exotic wagers.

Here we go again. It was only a few years ago that the hot debate in racing circles was whether Wise Dan deserved the Eclipse Award as Best Older Horse since his sparkling record was achieved on the grass. In 2015, after Wise Dan prevailed with Eclipse voters, the award was reclassified to Best Older Dirt Horse, since there already was a Best Grass Horse category.

This year the same issues could resurface in the 3-year-old male division. Always Dreaming would seem to have the inside track because all other things being equal, the Kentucky Derby is and should be the tiebreaker.

In spite of West Coast’s late-season heroics, which are not as impressive as Arrogate last year but are getting closer, he and Always Dreaming have the same number of Grade 1 wins, two. Meanwhile, Oscar Performance also has a pair of Grade 1’s, both on grass, and could ring up a third Saturday in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic against older rivals, something neither Always Dreaming and West Coast have even attempted.

Call me a hypocrite—I prefer flexible--but I’ve shifted positions. I advocated and voted for Wise Dan under the logic that he had done more than any of his dirt rivals. I’m on the other side this time. Oscar Performance will not get my vote even if the score is 3-2-2.

Three-year-old racing is all about main track Derbys, the classic in Kentucky, its preps and follow-ups, including the Travers, the Midsummer Derby. Oscar Performance might change my thinking if he were to win Saturday then take the Breeders’ Cup Turf or Mile. But I can’t say that for sure. Right now I would still lean the other way.

West Coast could put all the arguments to rest with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, Bob Baffert said after Saturday’s decisive triumph in the Pennsylvania Derby that West Coast might not even go in the Classic.

This is not a typical case of a trainer hedging weeks out from a big race. Baffert already has two of the three horses to beat in the Classic, Arrogate and Collected. (Gun Runner, of course, is the other.) Baffert also could start Cupid, who won the Gold Cup at Santa Anita at the Classic’s 10-furlong distance.

Right now West Coast is probably in no worse than a deadheat with Always Dreaming, who is on the shelf, for divisional honors. An off-the-board performance in the Classic, which considering who West Coast would be up against is far from a longshot, could tip the scales back toward Always Dreaming—or inject Oscar Performance into the conversation.

Unintended consequences

Talk about buzz kills. Just when I was celebrating along with other horse players the long overdue revision in IRS withholding policy on payoffs of more than 300-1, a couple of people whose opinions I respect took the fizz out of my champagne.

HRI contributor Indulto and Andy Asaro, the West Coast-based champion of players’ rights, both suggested the new regulations might have unintended consequences for small and medium bettors. Their view is the new IRS policy could signal the beginning of the end of fractional wagers—10-cent supers, 50-cent tri’s, pick 3’s, 4’s and 5’s and 20-cent Rainbow 6’s.

One of the catalysts for the low-priced wagers was to help players avoid IRS hits. The threshold for reporting was 300-1, a product of the $600 personal deduction the IRS granted tax payers for decades. The $600 deduction has been raised many times to reflect inflation but $602 (including the cost of the bet) remained the bar for “signers.” Indeed, it endures even under the new regulations.

So a player could hit a 599-1 proposition on a $1 wager and even greater odds on lesser bets and not have to report it. The new rules take into account the total cost of the wager instead of treating a winning combination as the only one that counts for tax purposes. This would seem to mitigate against the need for fractional bets.

However, lesser minimum bets turned out to have other benefits. The primary one is it brings fans with limited bankrolls into pools they otherwise would snub. This is not a debatable point. At every track where there are $1 or less pick 3’s and pick 4’s, they out-handle $2 pick 6’s by a three to four to one or more ratio.

Even with the original and for a long time only exotic, the daily double, a $1 minimum in New York far out-handles the $2 minimum version in Southern California.

The pig-headed hierarchy in California fails to accept that players aren’t spending only the minimum, they are playing more combinations and often spending more money under the perception they are getting more bang for their buck.

There’s also the issue of bringing new people into the game. The less expensive a day at the track is, the more inviting it is likely to be. Young people have less disposable income than ever due to student loan burdens and the fiscal strain of supporting a family. If they’re able to participate in a day at the races without busting their budget and enjoy the experience they are more likely to return when their financial situation improves.

Ergo, it would be incredibly short-sighted for tracks to use the relaxed IRS regulations as an excuse to increase the minimum costs of bets. This is why I'm so worried.

Miami, Sept. 28

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (13)


Thursday, September 21, 2017

How serious is racing about cleaning out cheaters?

The Jorge Navarro video scandal offers racing a golden opportunity to come down hard and demonstrate that it will not tolerate cheaters. Yet the reaction has been far less than decisive. Some jurisdictions have banned Navarro but others, including industry leader NYRA, have taken no meaningful action. This raises the question of whether the sport really wants to clean up its act or is just posturing when it says it does.

The Jorge Navarro scandal is the latest justification to pose the question, “How serious is racing about really wanting to clear up its drug mess?”

The Barr-Tomko bill has been languishing for a couple of years. It seems to have as much chance of passage as the flat tax. Racing’s hierarchy claims to be behind it but where is the evidence beyond lip service?

On the backstretch, the HBPA is adamantly opposed to any meaningful anti-medication legislation. With the power to kill simulcasting given to it by the Interstate Racing Act-- the single most damaging piece of legislation ever passed regarding racing-- the HBPA has veto power over any attempt to clean up the game and has made it clear it will use it.

Any doubt about where the HBPA stands was dispelled by its support of convicted serial cheater Murray Rojas. It won’t be surprising if the HBPA comes to the defense of “The Juice Man” before this sordid saga plays out.

Reaction to the damning Navarro video offers encouragement from some quarters but the same old, same old and worse from others. Why even talk about uniform drug rules when the sport can’t muster a uniform response to outrageous behavior like Navarro’s.

It’s not as if he is a virgin. He served 60 days in 2013 for six positives and is currently fighting another positive in Florida. Integrity is at the heart of the game. How can any race track allow a guy with his background, who openly and blatantly brags about cheating, onto the grounds and into their entries?

Plaudits to Indiana and Maryland for immediately informing Navarro he is not welcome. Let’s hope they make it stick. Delaware joined those doing the right thing on Wednesday, scratching a couple of Navarro horses and informing him his entries would not be accepted in the future.

It would seem safe to assume that if the Maryland ban holds, it will extend to Gulfstream. Tim Ritvo and P.J. Campo have acted decisively in the past to rid Stronach tracks of the likes of Marcus Vitali and Kirk Ziadie. As unacceptable as their antics were, Navarro would have to rank higher among the intolerables. Gulfstream regulars have been rolling their eyes for years at some of the form turnarounds The Juice Man has engineered.

Alas, this is not the universal reaction it should be. NYRA, which should be a leader, has taken a namby-pamby approach. As of now, Navarro is welcome to enter horses in New York, according to New York State Gaming Commission Steward Steve Lewandowski. “He’s good to participate unless I hear otherwise from the Gaming Commission.”

Lewandowski’s colleague, Jockey Club Steward Jim Edwards, filed a dissenting opinion. He cited Section 4002.12 of the Gaming Commission’s Rules and Regulations, which gives the commission the power to exclude persons from a racetrack for a variety of reasons, including a person, who “has been involved in any action detrimental to the best interests of racing generally.”

The exact wording Navarro was fined the maximum $5,000 (increased to $10,000 on Wednesday by the state commission) by Monmouth stewards was for “conduct detrimental to racing.”

Nevertheless, Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing, told the Racing Form that Navarro is “fine to race here.” Fine? Then why did Panza also say he might order extra monitoring of Navarro’s barn? As best I know, this scrutiny is applied only to suspected cheaters.

Parx also has no problem with Navarro. In the midst of the controversy, it accepted Navarro’s entry of Game Over for Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby. It would serve them right if Navarro pulls one of his magic acts in one of the few stakes that brings national attention to the Philadelphia area track.

The most disgraceful response of all came from the place where this all started. Dennis Drazin, who effectively runs Monmouth, was quoted in the Asbury Park Press that “Navarro is welcome back at Monmouth Park next year.” This is like a bank executive saying, “Dillinger is welcome back at our bank.”

Drazin apparently finds nothing suspicious about a guy clicking at an above 40 percent pace even if he is seen and heard at one of the race track bars bragging about cheating.

The stewards are equally derelict. A fine amounts to just another cost of doing business for Navarro. The video shows him and one of his owners, Randal Gindi, crowing about how much money they are making betting juiced horses. Navarro and Gindi should have been hit with the stiffest suspensions ever meted out in New Jersey.

The fact that Monmouth’s stable area was only about two-thirds filled this summer and Navarro started about 40 percent more horses than the next most active trainer might have something to do with this.
It has been widely noted that even though the video surfaced on Aug. 11, Monmouth’s stewards didn’t act until Sept. 6 and make a ruling until almost a week later, at the end of the meeting. This allowed Navarro to keep filling the track’s entry box—at the public’s expense.

Eddie Plesa Jr., a Monmouth and South Florida regular for years, also was quoted in the Asbury Park Press about the optics of embracing Navarro. “People will look at that and think this is the sport. For Navarro to be yelling ‘juice’ is mind-boggling to me. Here’s a trainer that has a tremendous winning percentage. I think you would have to look far and deep for anyone to say he’s that much superior to the rest of the trainers.”

If Richard Dutrow gets 10 years on questionable evidence, Navarro should be banished from racing forever. It’s an obligatory first step toward demonstrating that racing is serious about wiping out the scourge of drugs guys.

Win, Place a weak show

Any expansion of racing on television should be embraced by those who love the game. But it’s hard to develop positive feelings toward “Win, Place, Show,” a new reality series on TVG. Fresh episodes air on TVG at noon Tuesday, a slow day for the racing network, and are repeated sporadically during off hours.

I planned to review it right after the pilot three weeks ago. But the debut episode was so disappointing, I delayed writing anything in the hope it would improve. I did the same thing after episode two. Three shows have aired and it hasn’t gotten any better.

Good intentions aren’t enough. The best that can be said is the program presents racing in a positive light and the scenes set at Del Mar are captivating visually. Actual races are presented only in snippets.

Jimmy “The Hat” Allrad, a character on the Southern California racing scene for more than a quarter-century, is the driving force behind the show. He knows the game but he doesn’t always communicate it well. He tries much too hard to convey “Aren’t we having fun?”

Allrad convenes a cast of six each week. Four contestants are divided into two-person teams, each given $300 to bet on three designated races. The winners are the pair with the greatest total after race three. They get to come back for the finals for a still unstipulated prize.

They are assisted, but not very well, by two coaches, ostensibly experts and professional gamblers, although the advice and lack of it offered suggests this is an embellishment. Unforgivably, they allow the relative novices to bet three and four horses, some across the board, in a single race. The stop sign to this strategy should have gone up immediately. That it hasn’t has created situations where the contestants have the winner and still lose money. Not many new fans are going to be generated seeing this.

If racing is to benefit, a show like this should educate while it entertains. Instead the coaches offer nonsense like the goal is “bet the fastest horse at the biggest odds.” Duh!

Hats off to Allrad for the attempt but if the show is to have any future, it must be reconceived so that it doesn’t confuse newcomers while insulting genuine racing fans.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (22)


Thursday, September 14, 2017

QUESTION to INDUSTRY: Why Should One Bet Be Taxed More Heavily Than Another?

The average takeout for straight bets is a little more than 17 percent. For exotics, it's more than 22 percent. How does this make sense? Why should the more difficult to hit bets be taxed more for the attempt? The answer is typical: This is the way it always has been done. Another argument is this pushes people into easier to hit pools. This is outrageous paternalism: We know what's better for you than you do. A dirty little secret is the heavily taxed exotics subsidize the rebates to the computer guys, who aren't even real horse players.

The boss saved me some research with his column the other day (which I don’t agree with but applaud the effort to think outside the box).

J.P. reported the average takeout, according to HANA , is 17.25 percent on WPS and 22.28 percent on exotics. This saved me from tracking down these stats as soon as I finished getting my house into something resembling what it was before Hurricane Irma.

(Thank you again to those who sent well wishes. As the governor of Florida stressed, property can be replaced, lives can’t. My wife and I and our immediate family in South Florida had a lot of property damage but we are all safe and sound and have mostly dealt with the cleanup and restoration by now.)

The average takeout numbers are exorbitantly high and unfair but the bigger issue is a question I am ashamed of myself for never having raised. Why should any horse racing wager be taxed more heavily than any other?

The response that this is the way it always has been done is insulting and unsatisfactory. For most of the years this “has always been done,” racing had a monopoly on gambling opportunities. It could afford a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

As Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a changin’.” Racing no longer even has a monopoly at tracks with slots, which has become most of them.

Without endorsing what should be at least two to three points lower, if the rake on WPS is 17.25 percent, I would really like someone to explain why all bets are not 17.25 percent. In earlier times, I suppose it could have been argued that it took more labor by tellers to punch in a Pick 3 or Pick 6 than a Pick 1.
Now most wagers are made via automated terminals on track and computers off track. Tracks don’t have to do anything but crank up their computers after the race to see what the winners are going to get paid. This is no more difficult or time consuming for a Pick 4 than it is for a Show bet.

In fact, many tracks get to hold bettors’ money in the more challenging multiple-race and multiple-horse wagers when there are no perfect tickets, another outrage. This is never the case with WPS. So, if anything, tracks should charge less for the super exotic bets. But my contention remains all bets should be evenly taxed.

Expanding on that, if the whales are getting say 10 percent rebates on straight bets, shouldn’t these be taxed at a greater rate than the pools where rebates to the last-minute (or perhaps past-post) computer guys aren’t as much of a factor? The dirty little secret is raising the rake on the exotics preferred by casual players subsidizes the rebates to the computer gangs, who aren't even real horseplayers.

But the bigger point remains: why should any bet cost more than any other? It’s counter-intuitive that the harder a bet is to win, the more a player should be charged to make the attempt.

That some jurisdictions now offer Pick 5’s at the lowest takeout on their menu, some as low as 12 percent, bolsters my case. If they can offer a Pick 5 at 12 percent, why can’t all bets be similarly taxed? I have yet to hear any track say these low takeout rates are costing them money.

I have heard it said that higher takeouts on the more difficult bets are an attempt to push players into the pools where success is easier to achieve. I concur that this is the most prudent wagering strategy but that is for the individual to decide, not someone from on high.

If protecting the public from themselves is the goal, an argument could be made that racing should cease to exist. Nobody would lose anything. I jest, of course.

Also, if protecting the public from themselves is a goal, why do tracks expend almost their entire promotional efforts tempting players to jump into super jackpot pools. When was the last time you saw or heard a racetrack ad that says, "Win $6 on a $2 bet"?

This is a classic example of the paternalistic attitude that we know what is better for you than you do.

I categorically and emphatically reject this.

No Casino Bucks, No Jackpot

Racing got what I fear is a terrifying preview of the future this week.

Delta Downs has been forced to cancel eight stakes at its upcoming meeting, including the Delta Jackpot, which has ascended to national prominence and put the Louisiana bullring on the map. The culprit? Casino revenues are down big time because of Hurricane Harvey.

Delta’s casino relies heavily on patrons from the Houston area, where storm recovery has taken priority over slot machines. As has become the case at many venues, purses, especially big money stakes, are almost totally dependent on the casino dole.

Several states have either begun to reduce the set-aside from slots that goes to racing purses; have already done so; or are debating it in their legislative halls.

When this drip-drip becomes a deluge, which it inevitably will, racing as we now know it will cease to exist. The Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion, $1 million apiece when they are renewed next week, will go the way of this season’s Delta Jackpot if and when state lawmakers cut the casino money now dedicated to racing, as they have been threatening to do.

As much a racing champion as I am, I can’t say I will be sorry. Tracks have done nothing that I have been made aware of to prepare for this day.

Moreover, fans have not benefitted in any meaningful way from the casino windfalls. To use one prominent example, did the Whitney Stakes need to have a $1.2 million purse? Would it not have gotten the same field for a flat million? To answer my own question, of course it would have. Four weeks later, Gun Runner crushed the same caliber field for $750K in the Woodward.

If you took $200K from the Whitney and applied it to the benefit of fans, there would have been no need to kick up admission prices $5 a head for the Travers. As long as Resorts World is sending humongous checks to NYRA, there should be no admission or parking charges at any New York track. It's not as if the Aqueduct casino ceases to suck up money by the carload while the horses are at Saratoga.

The Whitney is just an expedient example. Stakes schedules are replete with ridiculously over-endowed races, some of which draw four- and five-horse fields—and not the best four or five.

I am not unaware that there is a legal prescription that a certain percentage of slots money goes to purses. This could be easily negotiated, especially since most of the horsemen who put on the daily show rarely share in million-dollar-plus purses. States are in the process of negotiating purse enhancements downward every day by attempting to lower the slots funds being sent to racing.

To bring this column full circle, if fans were allowed to wet their beaks from the casino money even just a little, there would be no need for some bets to cost more than others. And the rake could be a lot lower than 17.25 percent.

Miami, Sept. 14, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (71)


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